build bigger wheels without squats quads

Build Bigger Wheels Without Squats

I almost feel a little guilty writing an article about not squatting. Two years ago I may have been too bull headed to even try. But the truth is that heavy squatting can be amazing for some people, and a brutal pain in the back to others.

As much as I personally love the squat, I’m not bro enough to think that everyone in the world should be doing heavy squats in their workouts. As far as muscle building, fat burning, athletic carryover, and being strong as an ox squatting is one of the biggest bang for your buck exercises out there.

Unless, every time you do squat you find yourself in pain afterwards.

If you asked me for the lift that I feel contributed the most to transforming my body from weak and chubby to strong and muscular I would say it was the barbell back squat. I got started with the classic 3 days a week full body barbell program where I squatted every workout and went after bigger and bigger numbers. And I loved it. Shooting up from the bottom of a squat is such a powerful feeling, and driving to increase weight is what kept me consistent in going to the gym at the beginning.

The thing is, genetically I also have a favorable body type for squatting. I wouldn’t be considered tall in most middle schools and have a pretty stocky build, perfect for the exercise. It makes it easier on my body than it is for other people.   

But if are you one of the other lifters who finds themselves feeling it in their back, knees, shoulders, or neck the next day after every squat session they aren’t nearly as fun. It starts to affect your life outside the gym and make you tempted to skip training sessions to avoid the pain it isn’t doing you much good.

Here are a few reasons squatting (especially a barbell back squat) may not be the best exercise for you (at least right now).

  • You’re new to training and don’t have the movement ability to safely squat.
  • You don’t have the stability or flexibility to squat safely.
  • You have a previous injury to places like the knees, shoulders, back, or neck.
  • You have a long torso and femurs. This makes it challenging to safely squat and often puts you in a dangerous position.

So what should you do? Maybe squats are something that will always cause more pain than gain for you. Or maybe you just need to take some time away from them to address old injuries or increase your flexibility and stability in order to squat with better form. Either way you’ll need lower body exercises that allow you to grow a sick set of wheels without squats being involved.

While squats have tons of benefits to the body for things like losing your beer belly, building powerful and muscular legs, and full body strength there are are also benefits to using other exercises in place of squats.

  • Squats are the best full body exercise, right? That means they spread the load across your body instead of simply hitting the legs. This is fantastic for fat loss, but we are talking about building massive legs here so we don’t want the upper body to steal any of the work.
  • You put some serious weight on your spine with the barbell back squat. Replacing it with other lower body exercises can help you to keep training instead of being side lined by that old back pain.
  • Heavy squats also put a ton of stress on your nervous system, which in turn needs time to recover. By reducing that stress you can hit legs with more frequency through the week because you will need less recovery time.

So, if we are going to build some tree trunk legs without any squats in your program let’s make sure we hit the big lower body muscle groups with the kind of work that gets the job done. You can hit the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves without squats and see more muscle growth due to more direct training.  

build bigger wheels without squats lunge


If you want an impressive set of legs you can’t leave out the quads. Your squats were definitely helping to keep them in line before, but without squats in your routine you’ll want to make sure you’re lower body training includes some quad-dominant exercises. Most of the main non-squat, lower body exercises are hip dominant (deadlift, glute bridges, kettlebell swings, etc). Make sure to give the quads some more direct work like the exercises below.

Bulgarian Split Squat

This is our big one. You should be able to make up for a lot of what you miss from more traditional squats with this variation. You’ll also find it way easier on your back and easier to recover from so you can train more. Going single leg here puts almost all of the work into that front leg, which makes it an extremely effective leg builder.

Dumbbell Step Up

Step up and onto the box. Step back down with control. It’s a simple set of steps to execute, but this is an awesome exercise for building up the legs since you can go high reps here and use dumbbells to increase resistance.


Do you train glutes at all? Muscle and Fitness wrote an article about the 10 body parts women ranked the most attractive and glutes were high on the list. ( Outside of squats what are you doing to build an impressive back side?  

Hip Thrust

You’ve seen girls put up ridiculous numbers with the barbell hip thrust on Instagram. They know what they’re doing. This exercise is extremely powerful for growing your glutes. Try not to make eye contact with anyone in the gym mid rep.

Single Leg Glute Bridge

You’ll improve stability, strength, and glute hypertrophy with this one. If you aren’t squatting because of bad knees this is an awesome lower body alternative to add some size to your glutes (in a good way).


For rounding out the complete package of your legs, don’t skip out on the hamstrings. You’re strength, athleticism, and leg size will suffer otherwise. If you’re any type of athlete hamstring training is vital both for being faster and for decreasing the risk of injury, because they are primary muscles in the running movement and to slow down and stop.

Conventional Deadlift

More hamstring development comes from pulling conventional, and without the squat we are going to want to make sure we have a lower body we can go heavy on to improve strength. (And because lifting heavy is fun).

Romanian Deadlift

While the conventional deadlift will definitely work the hamstrings, the Romanian Deadlift will specifically target them. I’m a huge fan of this exercise as well as performing single leg dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts to build up the back of the legs.  


The calves are involved in the squat movement primarily as a stabilizer. So they weren’t going to get much bigger from those anyway. When it comes to training calves the go-to is the calf raise. I like to do a single leg variation you may not have tried before. Before signing off on your calves due to genetics make sure you give an honest try to training calves multiple days a week with different variations like these.

Single Leg Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise

Going single leg on the calf raise will help develop your calves and train their stabilization. Standing calf raises target the Gastrocnemius muscle in your calf (on the outside of the back of your leg).
Seated Calf Raise

By changing the angle of your calf raise by sitting down you’ll target a different calf muscle than the standing calf raise. You’ll hit the Soleus muscle (underneath the Gastrocnemius). Larger Soleus muscles add width to your calves.

Sample Workout

Warm Up

When it comes to muscles that don’t get a ton of work in the daily movement you do outside the gym, like the glutes, you’ll want to make sure to target them in the warm up to have them ready to go.

1.Glute Bridge

12-15 reps. Activate the glutes and hamstrings.

2. Lateral Band Walk

10-12 steps down and back. Get your glutes and abductors (muscles that move the leg out from the body) going.

3. Leg Swings

10 on each leg. Kick your leg out in front of you and let it swing back behind. Warm up the hamstrings for movement.

4. Spiderman Lunge

8-10 on each side. Mobility work to have the hips and groin ready for your lower body training.

Main Workout

1.Conventional Deadlift 2-3x 5

You know the deadlift. I like to do two or three sets of five at the start of the workout. After these the rest of the workout will involve more specific muscle groups so getting the big compound movement done first works well.

2. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 3x 10-12

Start with one dumbbell in the “goblet” position and work up in weight as you improve. Then switch to holding one dumbbell in each hand. Experiment with foot placement as yours will be unique and may need to be closer or further from the bench than other people.

3. DB Step Up 4x 8-12 each leg

Keep your body in control here especially when stepping back down. Your thigh of the first leg to step onto the box should be parallel to the floor.

4. Single Leg Dumbbell Calf Raise 3x 15 each leg

Hold one dumbbell in your hand on the same side that you’ll be picking your foot up. You can hold on to something like a squat rack or the wall to keep your balance.

Without heavy squats you’ll recover quicker from your leg workouts. You should increase training frequency and hit legs more than once a week to make sure you take full advantage and pump up those legs.

All Together

The squat is one of the most effective all around exercises out there. And if you are physically capable of knocking out solid squats with good form and no pain, then there is no reason not to do them.

If heavy squats are out of the picture, but you can handle lighter variations like a bodyweight squat that put less stress on your body, incorporate those into your routine. This will help you to maintain the movement pattern so that you are comfortable squatting down whenever you have to do so in life.

But if squats leave you in pain for days after, if you dread your training sessions with squats, or if you’re a beginner and simply don’t feel comfortable going for heavy (for you) squats. It is still absolutely possible for you to grow a massive pair of legs that make sure the whole world knows you don’t skip leg day, without any squats in your routine.

About the Author

Jordan Barnard is an online personal trainer who can work with you from anywhere in the world so you can get into the best shape of your life. Jordan is a certified online trainer, a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, Precision Nutrition certified coach, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Kennesaw State University. FREE 2 Week Online Training Program. Check out Jordan’s Website or find him on Instagram or Facebook.